Esther's Place

Esther's Place

September 11, 2013

5 Tips For Conducting Successful Oral History Interviews

Interviewing your own relatives can be a very enlightening and rewarding experience.  As a genealogist and family historian I often find myself using  the more formal records such as census records, deeds, wills, etc to reconstruct an ancestor's life.

5 Tips for Conducting Successful Oral History Interviews

But conducting oral history interviews with your relatives is what brings color to a relative or ancestor's life.  It's sort of like watching a TV show in black and white and then in color.  You notice things you missed. The details seem so much richer.


Just how do you interview a relative about family history?


I'm so glad you asked! 


Here are a five tips to get you started:

  • Make a Plan, but don't hold to it too tightlyWhat do you want to know?  Have 3-4 high priority questions you want to ask, but be flexible and willing to go where the interview goes. Often times the "best" stories or information is gathered from what the interviewee wants to share.  You may also come up with new questions based on something said in the interview.

  • If possible, send any specific questions you would like to ask ahead of time for the interviewee to consider. Reflection time before the interview often helps the interviewee be prepared to answer your questions. This can be done through the interview's son or daughter and for me, has proved quite helpful in focusing the interview.

  • Find a quiet place to conduct your interview. This may seem like common sense and, well, it is. It is also so easy to forget.  If you are interviewing an elderly relative who may be hard of hearing, having your conversation in a quiet environment and away from others talking is crucial.

  •  Start with a Photograph. Sharing a family photograph and asking questions about it is a great ice breaker.  This is a great idea especially if you are meeting your relative for the first time. Bring an extra copy for you relative to keep.

  • Keep the interview short unless your interviewee wants to continue talking the afternoon away.  If your are interviewing an elderly relative, notice when they are becoming tired and end there.   You can continue the interview at a later date or by phone.  I personally have found that once I have conducted an interview in person (and possibly met them for the first time), my relative is more than happy to talk with me again in person or by phone. 

 Now go schedule that interview with relative that you have been putting off!